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The Emperor’s new clothes – advertising undressed

By Lisa Beaumont

As part of their election campaign, Labour has proposed that it would ban the advertising of junk food on pre-watershed TV.  The proposal stems from the widely-held belief in the power of TV ads.  But my experience as a researcher in the field of advertising effectiveness leads me to be astounded by Corbyn’s pledge, politics aside, because it demonstrates a lack of understanding about how television advertising works.

As far back as 1974, Professor Andrew Ehrenberg first claimed that advertising is a weak force. He backed up his view with extensive analysis of sales data for fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands. A key finding he made was that advertising will encourage purchasers to switch brands but will not trigger additional purchases; in any market, there will be the same people buying different brands, evidenced by no increase in brand penetration. 

These findings have subsequently been borne out by the single-source data project, TV Span, funded by ITV and analysed by Taylor Nelson Sofres during the 1990’s.  This found that when advertising exposure occurred up to four weeks prior to a market purchase event for FMCG brands, the advertised brand’s market share increased by +5.2% above expectation.  Although this is a measurable difference, it is best described as weak, rather than strong

Popular misconception

So why is the belief in the power of advertising to influence behaviour still so strong? My 15-year-old daughter offered the explanation, which I expect might be shared by many: “Why would so much money be spent on advertising if it doesn’t work?” It isn’t that it doesn’t work,  but the question that you need to ask is what can you reasonably expect advertising to achieve for your product or service? And what should be measured?

My years in the field of advertising effectiveness research, working on seminal studies such as ITV’s TV Span and IPC’s Adtrack, taught me that any behavioural change which occurs in response to advertising exposure may occur thanks to the convergence of a number of stimuli, all of which are addressed by the traditional 4 Ps of marketing: product, price, place, promotion. It will be inadequate to use only one of these as a lever to influence behaviour, with the exception of price, which can be used to cause dramatic changes in buying behaviour in the short term.

Wider factors 

Therefore, while I understand the motivation behind removing junk food advertising in the early evening, I do not believe that – on its own – it will discourage children from buying sugary foods.  A friend countered my scepticism by referencing the ban on cigarette advertising. I looked for any evidence that this had been proven to have worked, but found none, albeit I’m happy to concede from firsthand knowledge of the world that the incidence of smoking has reduced since restrictions have been imposed upon cigarette advertising. However, is this the result of the ban on cigarette ads, or is it rather that society has changed and absorbed the learning about the health risks associated with smoking so fully that smoking is in decline? It may well appear as if a restriction in advertising delivered positive results, but I doubt that a genuine causal link will be proven.

The misunderstanding about the persuasiveness of advertising and its role in changing behaviour is widely held. I was reminded of the metaphor of the mirror and the lamp: are changes in advertising acceptability just reflecting societal shifts? Or does advertising contribute its own energy, like a lamp?

Best routes

Perhaps the removal of pre-watershed junk food advertising will be the beginning of the convergence of many stimuli which will result in behavioural change. My knowledge of advertising has led me to concur with Professor Andrew Ehrenberg and his view that advertising is a weak force and rarely worth the expenditure involved, unless it is very carefully targeted. Sponsorship is totally different and, chosen wisely, can be a highly productive route to take.

Sharp Minds Communications can help you to leverage the value of your content and is passionate about communications and about achieving results for clients. We will direct you towards the most remunerative communications routes.

To find out more about how Sharp Minds Communications can help with your marketing, email communications@sharpminds.agency

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